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Review of the Herman Miller Embody chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Herman Miller Embody chair

Let me tell you about effect the Embody has on people. I went into the showroom of my local office furniture dealer with a budget of about €800, stretchable to a non-negotiable limit of €1,000. With a price starting at €1,400, the Embody was strictly out of the question. But there it was – sitting there with that skeletal backrest and gorgeous design, like some prop from Star Trek that accidentally ended up among regular chairs. It would have been a shame not to try it out, if only out of curiosity.

As the flexible backrest cradled my back and the plastic “pixels” massaged my muscles, I started gently rocking back and forth, trying to think about how to drag out the conversation with the salesman to avoid having to get up. “Come to think about it”, I thought, “perhaps I could add €400 to my budget. After all, an ergonomic chair is an investment in health. You can’t put a price on that!” The salesman must have noticed my reluctance to get up. “People look at various chairs, but everybody always ends up on the Embody”, he mused. A couple days later, I was test-driving the Embody in my room.

The Embody seems to take a page out of Apple’s playbook – not just in terms of the design (it could have been designed by Jony Ive), but also the hard-to-justify price. There is no denying that it is a beautiful piece of industrial design, far better looking than the much-touted Aeron. I really can’t think of many chairs whose design is in the same league as the Embody – perhaps the Steelcase Think or Gesture, but that’s it.

The backrest on the Embody is a very flexible sheet of plastic supported by a matrix of loosely connected H-shaped “pixels”. As I mentioned above, the feeling you get when resting against it is that of being cradled and massaged at the same time. I didn’t make a video, so here’s a clip from TheTechReviewer’s review:

The thing about the backrest is that the flexibility is all in the upper torso. In the lumbosacral region, the chair is quite rigid. After 2 hours of sitting, I noticed my sacrum started getting sore from the plastic pegs digging into my spine. I am not the only one who’s run into this issue – one of my friends felt the same way, and there are a lot of online reviews which include the same complaint.

Whether or not you find the Embody uncomfortable in the sacral area, you will probably agree that it is not a “comfy” chair. It does cradle your back, and it does massage it, but it is a rather firm massage. If you want a feeling of induldgent comfiness as you settle into your chair after a long session at the gym, look elsewhere.

The shape of the backrest on the Embody can be adjusted with that knob on the right you can see in the above clip. This is similar to the “lower back firmness control” on the Steelcase Leap. What this does is change the shape from more of an S shape to a straight I shape, or vice versa. If your back is more curved, you need more of an S shape (the lower curve of the S fills in your lumbar region). I was able to mitigate the sacral discomfort by straightening the backrest, but then the upper curve of the S also became straighter and started pushing my upper torso forward in an uncomfortable way. Because the knob controls two sections of the backrest at the same time, there was no way to adjust it to fit the shape of my back. Perhaps the sacral part of the backrest could be made more comfortable by adding some foam in the right place, but I didn’t have the time to test it – plus there’s the question of whether you should have to do that kind of thing on a €1,400 chair.

The innovative backrest is attached to a bog-standard “smooth” synchro-tilt mechanism. This forces you to sit in what is essentially one position – you can recline a bit if you exert your back and thigh muscles, but the resistance rises quickly and you won’t be able to hold the position for any significant length of time. There’s a knob to adjust the resistance, but you cannot use it every time you want to change your position because you’ll go crazy trying to find the right setting for relaxing, and then the right setting for working, every single time. (The knob is continuous – there is no visual or tactile feedback as you turn it, so good luck getting back to your optimal working resistance if you change it.)

There is a trick that lets you recline without using your muscles – you can shift your body weight by putting your arms behind you like so – but then you can’t operate your mouse, so you cannot, for example, do casual browsing in a reclined position. Another way is to make the backrest resistance very low (so you can achieve a good recline angle for an extended period) and, when you want to do some serious typing, engage the tilt limiter to keep yourself (near-)upright. The tilt limiter then acts as a switch for changing position from upright to reclined, and vice versa.

Making heavy use of the tilt limiter is the best solution – though I should probably call it the “least bad” solution because it has some disadvantages. First, the Embody’s backrest doesn’t have a lot of inherent springiness, so when you hit the limit, it’s not exactly super-comfortable (see below clip from bkwtang’s epic review).

Second, if you’re being kept upright by the tilt limiter, you can no longer rock on the chair, and rocking is good for you.

Third, the tilt limiter control itself does not lend itself to frequent use. You have to move the tilt limiter lever by two stops to go from a near-upright position (tilt lock 2 – 112° hip angle) to a reclined position (tilt lock 4 – 127° hip angle), which is somewhat annoying. What’s worse, the lever is positioned at the very back, under the seatpan – hardly the most convenient location for a control that you’re supposed to use many times a day. (On the plus side, it looks like you don’t have to take your weight off the backrest in order to go from one tilt lock setting to another, like on the Aeron. But I’m going by the linked video here, so don’t take my word for it.)

Changing your position frequently is vitally important from the point of view of ergonomics, and your chair should encourage you, not discourage you from doing so. I feel that any chair that doesn’t let you easily switch from a near-upright (110–120°) “typing” position to a highly reclined “thinking / casual browsing” position (around 130°) cannot be called truly ergonomic. (I am well aware that, by this measure, the vast majority of office chairs are not ergonomic.)

The maximum hip angle on the Embody is around 127°, which is similar to the Steelcase Amia and considerably less than on the Leap or Gesture. That’s not a great result – I would like to see at least 130°.

If the smooth backrest makes it hard to switch between two positions, at least it gives you the ability to rock back and forth around your normal position, which is fun and probably good for your health (though less important than frequent position changes). However, if you use the tilt limiter as described above, you will obviously lose “rockability” in the near-upright position.

Photo showing the construction of the seat on the Embody chair

The bottom of the seat on the Embody

The thermal performance on the Embody is excellent. Your back rests on a porous fabric and the flexible plastic backrest, which has tiny ventilation slits. There is no foam in between. The seat is foam-free as well – it’s built like a mattress, with a layer of plastic hexagons on top of plastic springs on top of metal(?) strings. It’s a brilliant design that provides 30–50% better cooling (subjectively) than foam without sacrificing too much comfort. During long sitting sessions in an ambient temperature of 25 °C or higher, the Embody is much cooler than foam-based chairs.

As expected on a Herman Miller chair, the armrests are nothing to write home about. I found them hard to use because they’re a bit too long and there is no back–front adjustment. As a result, they kept bumping against the edge of my desk as I tried to move closer to my keyboard and monitor. About an inch shorter would have been perfect for me. Your mileage may of course vary.

I was able to adjust the armrest width so that I could use them to support my forearms when typing. The in–out adjustment of the armrests is achieved in an unusual way (again, I’m borrowing from TheTechReviewer here):

The result is that if you adjust the armrests inward for typing, they will also have a bit of a slope, which may make it harder to reach for the mouse because your forearm has to “climb the slope”.

A bigger issue is that the armrests tilt back as you recline, taking your arms away from your desk. This is a problem, because you cannot, for example, read something in the reclined position while using the mouse to scroll the page. Here’s how the Embody compares with the Steelcase Gesture (which has very level armrests):

Two photos showing the reclined armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody.

Armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody at the same recline angle (Embody’s maximum recline). Source: bkwtang’s long review.

It’s impossible to review the Embody without talking about the price. This is one heck of an expensive chair. The base price in the US is $1260, but Herman Miller will charge you an extra $40 for the better-looking white frame, and (outrageously) an extra $200 for the softer, more breathable Balance fabric (highly recommended given how hard the backrest is), bringing the total to $1400.

The Tom Test

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): I’m not sure if it’s a pass or a fail. You can use the tilt limiter as an “upright/recline switch”, but the lever is hard to reach, and then the backrest becomes a bit too stiff in the upright position. The reclined position is not very reclined.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass. Much better than the Aeron.
  • Lumbar support: Pass.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: I’m not sure. The backrest is flexible in the upper body, but the lumbosacral part can be hard and unforgiving. Could be a pass for you, depending on your back shape.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. You can rock on this chair, as long as you don’t use the tilt limiter.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Fail. They don’t stay level, are a bit too long, and the “sloping” width adjustment is not well-designed.
  • Annoyances: Other than what I’ve listed above, none.

Final words

Like most chairs with smooth backrests, the Embody is primarily a chair for sitting in one position – the “intensive working” position. You can try to make it do two positions, but it will make you feel it wasn’t really designed with that in mind: the tilt limiter makes the back a bit too stiff, the mechanics of switching from one position to another are a bit too cumbersome, and the limited recline angle does not let you truly relax your lumbar spine. In terms of allowing easy upright/reclined changes, it’s really not that different from your average $200 office chair with a synchro-tilt mechanism.

Since I consider changing your position to be an ergonomic priority, a chair that gets a mediocre grade in that area cannot get a great overall grade, even if it is perfect in all other ways (and, to be clear, the Embody isn’t).

Although the top part of the backrest feels amazing thanks to the innovative “pixel matrix”, the sacral section is quite hard and eventually caused soreness for me, my friend, and at least some other people (judging from online reviews). In my case, it would have been enough to send the chair back, but it could be absolutely fine for you, as long as you don’t mind firmness.

This is not a chair for armrest-lovers. Although they’re an improvement over the Aeron, a gaping chasm separates them from the best efforts from Steelcase.

I did not buy the Herman Miller Embody and I cannot recommend it, but it is a great-looking chair with some intriguing features. I would very much like to see some of the innovations used in it – particularly the pixelated back and the mattress-like seatpan – make their way into other chairs.

 

Thanks to Kornak Meble in Wroclaw, Poland for letting me try out the Embody and a few other chairs.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • Mark

    Hello, great review, I’ve learned a lot about Embody tkanks to you. I wonder what is your opinion about Spinalis chairs. Could you consider testing one of their products?
    Regards

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      My friend used to have a Spinalis chair. Now he’s using Steelcase chairs (Leap and Think). It’s a kind of compromise. You get two-in-one: an office chair and a gym ball. As a result, it’s not a great chair. You can tell they didn’t try very hard to make an ergonomic backrest — it’s a bit like a wooden board attached on springs. The armrests also suck. Considering you’ll spend most of your time using it like a regular chair, with your back resting on the backrest (the “ball mode” will wear you out after a short time), I’d say these are serious problems. I think a good ergonomic chair AND a gym ball (for using 15-60 minutes a day) is a much better combo.

      • Mark

        Thanks for fast and detailed response. I used to sit on gym ball but it’s impossible for me to use it more than 1-2 hours. I’ve read also your Steelcase Please 2 review (actually I read all reviews) and googled Leap chair – they seem to be solution for my lumbar aches. I like both, wish to try them but I’m not sure if any furniture shop has them stored and how much they cost in my country. I live near Łódź, PL and I noticed you got your Steelcases from WES Wrocław. Do they have shop with expo?

        • Tomasz P. Szynalski

          I don’t think you’re supposed to use a gym ball for more than 1 hour. I never sit longer than 30 minutes. With the other exercises that I do, it’s more than enough for me.

          Yes, you can try out the Leap and the Please in the WES showroom. Last time I checked, they didn’t have the latest refresh of the Please (the one with the better armrests), but it’s a small difference. Of course, I always recommend testing at home. WES may let you borrow one of their chairs for testing (not sure how it works when you’re not from Wroclaw). If you’re going to come from out of town, it’s probably best to call ahead, to make sure they will have all the chairs you’re interested in on a given day. But generally, they have several Leaps and Pleases in the showroom. Quoted prices from last year – for a basic Leap about €620 (excl. VAT), a Please is about €500. Those are good prices compared with standard retail prices in the US. This is for chairs with armrests, but no headrest. It costs more if you want a nicer fabric/upholstery, aluminum base, etc.

          You can also try finding a second-hand chair. Sometimes there are good deals, even in Poland (e.g. mint condition chair for less than half the price of a new one). It’s less risky that way because you can resell it for more or less the same price (which you can’t do with a new chair).

  • Mark

    I also appreciate Mposition review much.

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      I tried it only briefly. It was very comfortable. I’d love to have one for reading/watching stuff on my iPad (the laptop “shelf” can be made vertical), but it’s much too expensive and big to buy it just for that purpose. For serious computer work, I’m skeptical, because it’s laptop-centric, and working on a laptop is always bad (the screen is too low, so you have to bend your neck), and the keyboard position on the mPosition is not great for typing. (See the position at 1:49 here.) I suppose you could also use it like a normal chair (with a normal desk and PC), so maybe it could work – but I haven’t tested that.

      Another possible problem: in the reclined position, it is too comfortable and you end up not moving for long periods of time. Once you’re lying down, it’s kind of hard to get up. Moving is good!

  • Mark

    That’s why I asked about mPosition. About 2 months ago there was used mPosition in great condition for sale for a half price. I’ve almost bought it sight unseen, without testing but had to transport it by myself. Unfortunately it’s in one piece and my car is too small. Nevertheless I consider Leap or Please. I asked WES for offer. Price is OK but they don’t have both models stored right now and shipping time is horrifyingly long. My back suffers hard recently, I’d like to go to shop, test a chair for 2-3 hours and take it home.

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      Yes, you have to expect about 1 month lead time with Steelcase chairs. They are all made to order. You also have to add significant time for processing (WES is the slowest company I’ve bought anything from — it could take a week just to get an invoice) that gets added to the 1 month.

      You can also buy a demo unit from WES, but they charge a lot (for the condition) and there is no warranty. But you get the chair immediately.

      If you want Steelcase, your best bet would be the second-hand market.

      Another idea: you could suggest that you will buy a chair from WES but only if they give you a temporary chair while you wait for the new one. It’s not standard procedure, but they might agree. They have a lot of chairs lying around.

  • Tony

    I’ve had similar issues with other ergonomic desk chairs in the tilt-lock/resistance features and the spines digging into the sacrum region…

    I’ve found if you stick with it, a lot of the issues with the chairs go away.

    Once you’ve found your ideal resistance level for sitting and for reclining, it becomes easy to quickly give the resistance knob a couple turns in either direction to get a desired resistance. It does require more patience and for you to pay more attention to what you are doing, especially at first but once you’ve dialed it in, you’ll develop a sort of muscle memory of how many gross-turns to go from one position to another to get “close enough” to your normal setting for the position and if you want to fiddle with or find you still need more finite changes, it doesn’t take much more to dial it in further… In a lot of ways, it’s like a manually controlled car seat or motorized car seat that doesn’t have memory; it doesn’t take you long to find a comfortable driving position and some easy to dial in minor adjustments as you go can make your day driving (or sitting at your desk) more pleasurable… The analogy ends there though as unlike a car seat, if someone else sits in “your chair” and futz’s with the settings, it takes a great deal of time and effort to dial back in… These are definitely chairs for 1.

    As for the sacrum issue? A lot of the time a bad desk chair will encourage a bad sitting posture that makes these extremely ergonomic chairs uncomfortable.

    In an ideal posture, your spine should have a gentle stacked S shape; your cervical spine from the head to the shoulders should be concave with a slight inward/forward or lordotic curvature, the thoracic spine from your shoulders to the bottom of your ribs should be convex with a slight outward/backward or kyphotic curvature, the lumbar region from your ribs to just above your hips is again concave with a slight inward/forward/lordotic cuvature and the sacrum region is again convex with a slight outward/backward/kyphotic curvature. This curvature creates a very natural spring capable of taking huge amounts of force without damage but it also keeps our body mass centered and balanced over our hips, legs and feet.

    In an ideal sitting position, you should be leaning back into your chair and allowing the chair to support your entire spine…. Most of us dont do this, we tend bring our heads forward causing the cervical spine to straighten or even become kyphotic. The human head weighs about 10 pounds and this kyphotic shape means the weight of our head is no longer naturally supported by our spine but our muscles. This creates an overstretching of our trapezius (from the base of the skull down into shoulders and mid-back) and levator scapulae (long muscles that run down either side of the neck from the top of the cervical spine to the scapula) muscles that is often associated with neck and shoulder pain but it also creates a tightened pectoral muscles that causes our shoulders to roll slump forward and roll inward.

    Often the thoracic spine become hyper-kyphotic (overly curved) and the body tries to correct the imbalance in the lower back and the spine overall takes on more of a C shape. This correction and C shape causes chairs designed for proper posture to exert additional pressures on the Lumbar and Sacrum region, particularly the L5-S1. It’s more likely your L5 that you feel the chair digging into than your Sacrum.

    It takes time for your body to redevelop the muscles and correct the spinal curvature to match the posture required to sit in these chairs comfortably. Living through that initial discomfort though is often well worth it. As the body corrects these imbalances, the pain goes away as you are sitting correctly but so too does the pain from overworked and overstretched muscles in the lower back and neck/shoulder regions. As an added bonus, you learn to maintain the proper posture at all times which makes you look more confident and taller.

    The arm-rests reclining with the chair is still an issue but this again is designed to support/encourage/force proper posture. Cheaper ergonomic chairs will not recline the arm rests and will allow you to get away with other bad posture habits; the Embody is designed to force you to adopt good posture habits even if it comes with some annoyances.

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      Hi Tony,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Do you have any sources for the following statements: (1) Thoracic hyperkyphosis results in a C-shaped spine, (2) Sitting in an uncomfortable chair can reinforce good posture. The reason I ask is that all the professionals I’ve consulted emphasize that a chair has to be comfortable (and explicitly caution against sitting in an uncomfortable chair), and furthermore, that in adulthood, the basic shape of the spine does not change — you can only tweak it a little bit by retraining your muscles.

      About the armrests – I don’t see how the armrests reclining encourages proper posture. It makes it impossible operate the mouse and keyboard while reclined, therefore it discourages reclining. Reclining is good. Perhaps I’m missing something.

      As for the Embody specifically, the problem was definitely in the sacrum, rather than L5. And I tested it on a friend who has normal posture (I’m a bit hyperlordotic/hyperkyphotic) – his impressions were the same.

  • Marko

    Hello. I bought Embody on second hand market for nice price, but I got a problem with it. I have really boring pain on tendons between glutes and harmstring and I really don’t know is it because I can’t find a way to adjust chair for me or it is just bad for me? I didn’t had that problem with more libar support, but then I have some kum bar soreness. Which ergonomic chair would you recommend for me if I decide to sell this one?

  • Brendan Martin

    Curious on your thoughts on the Leap vs the Embody. I started with a used Aeron for a week, was getting pain in my sides so I returned and exchanged for a Leap with headrest. Have now been sitting on it for a few days and find the seat pan extremely hard. I’ve also been experiencing a bit of shoulder pain and the lumbar is hard to adjust too, although I think I will over time. I went out and tried the Embody at a store and immediately liked it. It seems to support my shoulders more than the leap and I liked the larger seat pan as well.

    The store I bought the Leap from only does exchange and as far as I know they don’t have any Embodys so if I got one I’d probably end up having to sell the Leap and lose some money on it.

    I’m wondering if you think I should try and stick it out on the Leap and adjust or if I would like the Embody more. I feel like I should have just bought new from the beginning from somewhere that allowed in home trials.

    I love your articles by the way. They are the only ones i could find that didn’t just regurgitate the talking points of Steelcase and Herman Miller and then spam you with affiliate links to try to get you to buy the chair.

    • Tomasz P. Szynalski

      Brendan,

      Thanks for saying you like my reviews.

      Hard seat pan on the Leap? That’s strange – it has one of the softest seatpans I’ve tried. One trick is to retract the seatpan – if the seatpan is extended forward, your butt will feel like it’s in a hole, which can feel uncomfortable. Don’t worry about having too much space between the end of the seatpan and your knees. I don’t think the seatpan on the Embody is much softer, although you may end up liking it more due to the different design (it uses springs not foam). Perhaps I’m not very demanding when it comes to seatpan softness…

      About the shoulder pain, I’m not a physiotherapist and even if I was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much without knowing the type of pain. I will say though that you could try to adjust the curvature of the backrest using the large knob on the right – this will let you choose more support in the lumbar section vs. the thoracic section. I would actually expect more shoulder pain on the Embody, as it tends to push against your shoulders more than the Leap.

      I’m not sure what you mean about the lumbar being hard to adjust – you just move it up or down (though I removed it entirely, as I didn’t find it necessary).

      Since you can’t return the Leap, I suggest you try it a bit longer. You can always sell it later.

      • Brendan Martin

        Hi Tomasz,

        I think you’re right. I’ll keep sitting on the Leap for a while and see if I get more used to it.

        Do you think you’ll ever publish a review on the Leap? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  • Stefan E

    Hi,
    thanks for your detailed review.

    My current task chair is a Sedus Netwin that I have owned for 10 years now. The disadvantages of this chair are its rather low back support (most of the pressure is on the lower back) and that you can’t really sit in a reclined position for more than a few minutes (because of the lumbar gap that you describe in your other reviews). I still like the chair because it encourages you to move (to rock) and you can also sit on it leaning against the backrest with the side of your body.

    I ordered the Embody, tried it at home for two weeks and ended up quite disappointed – and returned it in the end. I’ve been suffering from muscle tension and pain in my upper back (between the shoulder blades) for years now so I hoped that the pixel matrix of the Embody would provide better support for my upper back.

    I’ve on the other hand never had any back pain in my lower back and I certainly didn’t expect a “comfy” chair, but you are absolutely right about the lumbosacral part – it was too hard for me and I also felt my lower back getting sore after using the Embody for just one week.

    But I also had problems with the upper back support. The upper part of the backrest has a C curved shape and it pushed my shoulders and shoulder blades forward (which was exactly what I didn’t want and I had high hopes about this because of the rather narrow backrest). I could avoid this by forcing my shoulders back, but then there was a big gap between my spine and the chair. I added some foam/cloth in the upper center part of the backrest and this solved the problem a bit but didn’t seem like an elegant solution for a chair of this price. Even with this “addon” and changing the lumbar support setting for a million times I still didn’t feel that I could get the pixel matrix to fit the shape/size of my spine (I’m 181 cm tall and slim). The main reason was the transition between the stiff lower part and the flexible upper part.

    The Embody certainly is a great chair in many regards but it doesn’t fit just anybody (like any other chair).The next chair I’m going to try is the Please V2. It’s not as pretty but your review looks promising.

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